U.S. military deaths in the Afghanistan War declined in 2011, the first drop in four years, amid a string of battlefield successes against Taliban insurgents by U.S. and other coalition forces.
“We are very optimistic that the new trends will hold,” German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, the top coalition spokesman, said Monday in a telephone interview.
The number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan totaled 405 last year, down 18 percent from 2010, according to Pentagon reports compiled by USA Today.
Overall allied deaths, including U.S. forces, totaled 545 in 2011, down from 699 in 2010. The coalition death toll had been rising since 2005.
A surge of more than 30,000 U.S. troops beginning in 2010 helped drive insurgents from their strongholds in the southern province of Helmand and in Kandahar, which is the Taliban’s spiritual homeland.
Coalition forces have also launched regular raids targeting leaders, bomb makers and others important to the insurgent organization.
“We have run a relentless campaign against their middle-level leadership,” Jacobson said.
Commanders will need to continue the momentum even as U.S. forces withdraw from the battlefield. Under a White House plan, 10,000 U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011 and another 23,000 are scheduled to come out by September. Currently, there are 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
By the end of 2014, the coalition command expects to turn overall security responsibility to the Afghan government. Coalition leaders plan to keep some forces after that, but the size has not been determined.
Seth Jones, an analyst at Rand Corp., said U.S. casualties are not a good measure of progress in a counterinsurgency, although the numbers have an impact on American public opinion.
“The struggle is for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population,” Jones said.
There are challenges ahead. Violence has shifted to the east and the Taliban’s top leadership continues to enjoy sanctuary in remote areas of neighboring Pakistan.
U.S.-Pakistani relations have deteriorated in recent months, particularly following a November NATO airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani troops.